This is Betty Magdalen's favorite Neels...not mine or Betty Keira's (the heart wants what the heart wants), and we are everlastingly grateful that she took on the job.
I'm guest reviewing Fate is Remarkable for Betty Debbie and Betty Keira, who are off enjoying some well-earned "off-duty." And, as I know in advance I cannot replicate their delicious concoctions of amusement, affection, and appreciation (topped with lashing of whipped cream!), I thought I'd present this review in a slightly different way.
We don't get much of the hero's point of view in the standard Betty Neels romance, and we get even less in Fate is Remarkable because Hugo van Elven (great name, yes?) is keeping secrets. And yet, I would argue that we can deduce what Hugo's feeling -- and it's very familiar to us all. Here, then, is Fate is Remarkable (Hugo's Story):
Hugo van Elven was 35 when he finally fell in love. To be sure, he'd had a youthful romance with a fellow doctor, Janet, but after two years she'd emigrated to the US. Hugo had mourned the loss of a presumed future more than Janet herself, but he was a private man and allowed his family to assume his heart had been well and truly broken. They were wrong. His heart was whole, but that organ now belonged entirely to Sarah Dunn, whom he'd met when she was a staff nurse on Men's Medical. A pretty girl at 23, she would be a beautiful woman. It wasn't her serene good looks that he loved, it was her gentle manner and loving spirit. But she was so young and seemingly focused on her career. In time, he thought, she would want a different life, one with children and a husband.
So Hugo arranged to have Sarah promoted to sister of the Outpatient Department, where he was a consultant. He'd had a vague notion that he would let her get settled in her new job for a while before he asked her out, but before he could act on that plan, he learned she was dating Steven, the surgical registrar. Steven was a good enough surgeon, Hugo supposed: young, ambitious, and good looking. But he wasn't good enough for Sarah. Sure enough, eventually the hospital grapevine disclosed that Steven was also dating Binns's daughter; as the daughter of the surgical consultant at St. Edwin's, she would be a handy steppingstone to further young Steven's career. Hugo was concerned for Sarah's heart; if she loved Steven, this could hurt her badly.
He knew about the Binns engagement before she did; she probably thought the important thing Steven needed to tell her was a proposal of marriage. It was painful to see her happiness as she worked with Mrs. Brown, their patient who was slowly dying of respiratory problems and congestive heart failure. The Binns announcement would be in the paper soon; Steven was going to have to tell Sarah that night. Hugo resolved to keep an eye out for her. Thankfully, when he could tell from Sarah's pinched face that Steven had thrown her over (the fool!), Mrs. Brown provided him with an opportunity: She needed someone to care for Timmy, her cat, while she was in hospital; Hugo volunteered.
Hugo could well imagine Mrs. Brown's living arrangements: a dreary room in a rather noisome lodging house. It seemed wrong to send her back there to die, but there was no reason why he shouldn't help to make them more attractive. Sarah seemed genuinely concerned for Mrs. Brown. so he didn't hesitate to ask her to meet him at the old woman's room and "help" him collect Timmy. This necessitated a trip for all of them, Sarah, Mrs. Brown, and Timmy, to his house in Richmond, on the Thames. Hugo was aware he had engineered this chance for Sarah to see how he lived, but he was past caring. She looked miserable, when she wasn't furious at Steven, and Hugo's heart ached to see her so sad. He was able to say truthfully, "It gets easier as the days go by--especially if there's plenty of work to do." A lesson he'd learned all too well over the last five years.
His plans for Mrs. Brown's room were quite successful. After Sarah picked a garish cabbage rose wallpaper (because Mrs. Brown liked pink), he got her to call him Hugo. She was clearly startled by the informality, which to him felt significant after years of "Sister" and "Doctor." Hugo insisted on driving her back to the Nurses' Home; as he'd suspected, they passed Steven, clearly waiting to talk to Sarah and, presumably, upset her again. Hugo was proud of the way he didn't knock the younger man down. His forbearance was rewarded a few days later when he saw Sarah slap Steven.
Next, they needed to buy furniture for Mrs. Brown's room; another opportunity for him to take Sarah out in his Iso. She wasn't the sort of woman to be impressed by houses or cars, he knew, but she needed to know something of how he lived if she -- but he was getting ahead of himself. He took her to the Grill Room; not a place Steven had taken her, he felt sure. She had this endearing way of wrinkling her nose when she smiled... He hadn't thought it was possible to love her more, but he'd been wrong. It was a wrench to take her back to the hospital when his every instinct was to take her away from all of that.
The following weekend, when Mrs. Brown was to go home to her redecorated room, Hugo invited Sarah to accompany them. She seemed better, he thought, as he watched her taking in the changes in the room and Mrs. Brown's pleasure in it. He'd made up his mind, but he mustn't rush his fences. He couldn't do this over dinner or in Richmond. It had to be at St. Edwin's, where she would feel most comfortable. So after Monday's clinic, as Sarah was gathering up the notes from that afternoon's patients, he assumed what he thought of as his "consultant's demeanor," and asked her to marry him.
He'd thought a lot about how to explain this. For his plan to work, it was critical that she not know he loved her. He knew instinctively she'd refuse him and never reconsider; she would be that certain that it would be unfair to marry him when she thought she still loved Steven. "Why are you so surprised?" he challenged her. "We're well suited. You have lost your heart to Steven, and I -- I lost mine many years ago." Ah, yes, that was artfully done, he congratulated himself. She must have heard the rumors that he'd been unlucky in love; she would assume he meant Janet. He explained about mutual respect and liking, and how he expected nothing more from her. All true and yet he was leaving out everything that his heart longed to tell her.
Her response neared destroyed him. "You don't want my love? Even if I didn't love someone else?" It was all he could do not to ask for that love on the spot. But she did think she loved Steven; it was no use pretending otherwise.
He should get an acting award, he thought savagely as he composed a bland response. "I want your friendship. I enjoy your company; you're restful and beautiful to look at and intelligent." He could see her frown when he mentioned that she was 28, but he was oddly pleased at her annoyance. She wasn't indifferent to him, he even fancied she liked him tolerably well. It wasn't what he wanted, but it would do as a start.
He knew not to pressure her, and so had resolved not to ask her out that evening. But when she stood up, all the notes in her lap had slid to the floor in a slither. He had to laugh. "My God! It looks like we're going to spend this evening together anyway," he said as he crouched down to sort everything out, grateful just for another hour with the woman he loved.
Hugo had timed his proposal for the day before his holiday. Sarah needed time to think, but it was difficult to be away from her for so long. When she asked him how his holiday had been upon his return, he realized it had been better for even the hope she might accept him. He wanted to ask what her decision was immediately, but no matter her answer he'd be distracted for the rest of the clinic. When they were done, he simply asked her out, and when she accepted it was a relief. "Shall we be celebrating, Sarah?" he said. It was torture watching her turn out lights and act as though he'd said nothing, but then she smiled that gorgeous smile and told him yes, they would be celebrating.
Being engaged, Hugo quickly discovered, meant a new series of challenges. He liked Sarah's parents immediately, but it was bittersweet to be in Sarah's world still guarding his feelings, watching what he said and how looked. Similarly, it hurt to show Sarah the rest of his house in Richmond; the two bedrooms when he wished it was only one. When they came to the door that lead to the nursery, he couldn't bring himself to show her the rooms he so wanted their children to enjoy. He sensed her disappointment, but when he imagined little girls with Sarah's dimples and grey eyes, he just couldn't bear to think they would live as friends for months, or even years, before her heart was whole again. He enjoyed taking her to the theatre and restaurants; at times it even felt they were a normal engaged couple. But just before he was to take her away from the hospital for the last time, Steven upset her again. Hugo comforted her as she cried angry tears, even as his own hopes withered. "I'm sure we'll be a comfort to each other," she said. Poor consolation, he thought, but it will have to do.
They married in Sarah's West Country village with both sets of parents present. Hugo thought he had never realized how beautiful she was, in her elegant, simple white dress. He had been thrilled when Sarah asked shyly if he might want a wedding ring; he kept glancing at it on his left hand, a symbol of his commitment to her, he thought, and the first that he could show the world. He felt as though he'd loved her forever. They left shortly after the wedding breakfast, using the drive to Scotland as their excuse. Hugo was pleased and nervous to take Sarah to his cottage at Wester Ross. He'd imagined her there so many times, but there was always the risk she wouldn't like it.
It was a long drive, but never had it seemed to go by so quickly for Hugo. They spoke about his home in Holland; she seemed to understand how he came to be living in Richmond for now but would move to the family house eventually. She asked about the cottage, which he'd bought right around the time he'd fallen in love with her. He'd needed a place away from his parents and sisters, a place he could be himself and not perpetuate the farce that he was mooning after Janet after more than a decade.
Sarah seemed surprised at the length of the journey, a trip he made so frequently it seemed normal if not routine. He didn't think of Sarah as a woman beset by nerves, but the distance seemed truly to rattle her and she was certain only a desperate situation would cause her to attempt the trip on her own. Her vehemence made him wonder if the cottage was going to seem too remote for her, but when he arrived, he could tell immediately she loved it as he did.
He'd never been so happy in Scotland. Even fishing was more delightful with Sarah knitting off to one side. He hoped their happiness -- for she was happy, he could tell -- would remain and even flourish when they got back to Richmond, but the realities of the situation were waiting for them in the form of an invitation to Anne Binns's engagement party. It was a long-familiar sensation, masking his disappointment as Sarah looked so beautiful and still so unattainable. He tried to remember all the reasons why he'd been right to pressure her into marriage, but sometimes he was less confident that she'd realize she no longer loved Steven.
There were other realities to marriage he hadn't anticipated. He volunteered at John Bright's clinic in Wandsworth (the dodgy end) on Tuesday and Friday evenings. Hugo was reluctant to tell Sarah; it would sound pompous and even possibly boastful. But she seemed so annoyed when he didn't explain where he was going and why; he was in a quandary how to handle the situation. He realized he was going to have to show her, so on a stormy afternoon when he knew she would be visiting Mrs. Brown (who didn't have many days left, he feared), he collected Sarah from there and took her to Rose Road. He could tell she was curious, but she was a smart woman and would see for herself. He should have foreseen that she would immediately start to help, and work straight through the surgery hours. She seemed immediately indispensable; he wondered how they'd managed without her. And he should have foreseen she'd want to come again, a development he had to admit annoyed him. If he couldn't declare his love for her, the least he could do was to care for her and make her feel safe and protected. Rose Road was hard work under unpleasant circumstances. Again, he'd misjudged her; she was thrilled to help. And when he was alone, he had to admit he was thrilled to have more time working with her. He'd missed working with her at St. Edwin's O.P.D.
Mrs. Brown died a few days later. He'd gotten to her room just in time to find Sarah look at him with naked relief; Mrs. Brown was still alive, but he could tell it wouldn't be long. She hadn't lost any of her wits, he thought, when the old woman told Sarah that her first name was Rosemary, "a nice name for a little girl." Sarah's response, that when they had a daughter she would be named Rosemary, took him by surprise. Did she mean that, or was she just telling Mrs. Brown a soothing lie?
With each day, the questions piled up to which he had no answers. Was Sarah still in love with Steven? At their first dinner party he'd been certain she was not; she was a poised and happy hostess. But when someone mentioned the date for the Binns wedding, he saw her look stunned at the news, and then smile happily at him. Was this finally when she would tell him how she felt about Steven? Hugo was never entirely sure what was the right thing to say; it was unthinkable that he should demand answers of a woman he had married under the guise of friendship.
Hugo was still questioning the decision to let Sarah work at Rose Road. He'd come out of the examining room one evening to find her dealing with three youths bristling with bravado. One had grabbed Sarah's wrist; she didn't seem panicked, but Hugo could barely restrain the urge to hit the lad. They backed down, as bullies often do, in the face of a larger enemy. He could tell, though, that Sarah pitied them more than was frightened, and for that reason he offered them jobs at the surgery. He still had an arm around Sarah's shoulders; he didn't want to let her go, ever. But when he asked if they'd scared her, she seemed annoyed with him. Perhaps he should have refused to let her work at Rose Road. The thought festered so much that when he was next alone with her, his control slipped and he kissed her, hard. It was a mistake, a taste of something he wasn't allowed, and it must never happen again, he thought savagely. He had no idea he'd said it aloud.
That taste, that glimmer of everything he wanted, stayed vivid in his mind. When he came home late the evening of their next dinner party, he found her wearing a dress he particularly liked. It was reassuring somehow; Hugo rather feared she'd bought the dress for a date with Steven and resented wearing it for him. When he'd changed and come back downstairs, he nearly asked her what his heart kept demanding: was she still in love with Steven, or was her heart finally healed. Before he could ask, the first guests arrived and the moment was lost. Hugo couldn't tell if she was relieved or disappointed. For that matter, he wasn't certain of his own feelings. If she was heart-whole, they perhaps could fall in love properly, openly. But if he declared himself too soon...
It was a shock, then, to discover that Sarah was still convinced he was in love with Janet. What was worse, she seemed to have it in her mind that he kept parts of himself locked off, like the nursery rooms. He didn't know what to make of this muddle. It was a relief, in a way, that their trip to Holland was upon them. He had the odd sensation that he only knew what he was doing when he was in a medical office or traveling. And the trip did seem successful. They relaxed with each other, happy again to be in each other's company. He felt on surer footing: in just a little while -- perhaps after Sarah saw young Steven safely married to Anne Binns -- they would be able to get on with the rest of their marriage. That day couldn't arrive soon enough for Hugo, who was still struggling with how to give Sarah gifts while he waited to give her his love. He worried she would think he was trying to buy something with them. What did it matter that he could afford an antique bowl or a fur coat? Why, then, did she insist on thanking him all the time as if they barely knew each other? Would she never think of herself as his wife?
He had a trip to the States planned for a while; he'd assumed Sarah would accompany him. But at the last minute he changed all the reservations to just one traveler and announced the trip as coolly as he dared. Sarah was shocked, he could tell, but he felt he was running out of time. One of these days he was going to blurt out his feelings for her like a schoolboy. Perhaps three weeks' away would help her to miss him.
It only took a day for Hugo to realize he'd miscalculated badly. Traveling alone reminded him too acutely of all those years when he knew she had a date with Steven from the special smile she had in the O.P.D.; being alone might not be bothering her at all, but it made him miserable. He was desperate to ring her every day regardless of how it must seem to her. She missed him at first, but after a few days, she sounded fine. He had to admit to her that he was lonely as well. After that, she was more comfortable chatting with him in the pre-dawn hours before he started his day. He wandered around strange cities in his free time, thinking about her. He even bought her a ring that said how he felt, and wrote on the hotel stationery what he couldn't bring himself to say in person. He cut short dinner meetings simply because the sooner he went to bed the sooner he would hear her voice again. Lovesick, indeed.
At last he was free to fly back to her, he thought, as the cab took him to the airport. He was in the lounge, lighting his pipe, when he heard his name. To his amazement, it was Janet, looking lovely but unhappy. They fell into the sort of catching up conversation of old friends. He told her about Sarah, speaking with such evident pride and happiness that Janet had to confess her own marital woes. She'd married an American engineer she'd met in London and moved with him to Boston; that much Hugo had known already. But their inability to have children had strained their marriage, and Janet had rashly accepted a six-month position as Medical Registrar at St. Kit's in the hopes it would either solve something or end all the uncertainty. Hugo certainly understood that instinct.
Hugo never knew precisely what prompted him to suggest they share a taxi cab from the airport, or that Janet should come in for a drink and meet Sarah. It was reckless, he knew that, but something about Janet's story egged him on. Surely Sarah, his smart fearless Sarah, would see immediately that he didn't love Janet, that he'd not loved her for years. But the Sarah who greeted them in the hallway was a stranger to him, a polite stranger more welcoming to Janet than to himself. It was infuriating, he thought as he endured an endless evening, conscious of the ring box in his jacket pocket. At least they'd liked each other before he went away. Now she was treating him like a dinner guest in his own home. Janet's troubles turned out to be more complicated than Hugo had realized; there was a chance her inability to have children was treatable, but she didn't want to hear it, didn't want to hope. He couldn't discuss any of this with Sarah, who barely seemed to care what he did or whom he saw. They got through the stupid Binns wedding, but nothing improved. Sarah continued to throw Janet in his face, arranging for yet another dinner with her. His patience at an end, Hugo finally asked her point blank, "Do you still love Steven, Sarah?" Clearly he spoke too soon, or was too late, for she didn't answer his question.
At least one thing was getting resolved, Hugo thought tiredly. Janet's treatment was showing progress in her hormone levels and she'd agreed to ask her husband to join her in London. Hugo met Janet at Fortnum's at the appointed time, but her American husband was late. It was a relief finally to meet him and hand Janet over to him. This had cut into Hugo's schedule badly; as a consequence the rest of his day was squeezed and he was late getting home. He had to talk to Sarah, no matter what. He'd been stupid in so many ways, and seeing the joy on Janet's face only served to remind Hugo that there was no excuse for withholding the truth from your spouse.
He knew immediately when he got home that something bad had happened. Sarah wasn't there, and Alice confirmed that she'd left hours earlier. He found the note she'd left for him; she was leaving him so that he could marry Janet. She'd been at Fortnum's and seen them -- how could he have missed her, he thought distractedly -- and arrived at the same realization he'd had. She just had the wrong idea of who belonged with whom.
The first thing to do was find her, of course, but that proved harder than he imagined. He rang everyone he could think of, her parents, Kate, even old Mr. Ives. He went to work, came home, pretended to sleep, and not once did he stop worrying. She could be anywhere, with anyone. Finally, on the weekend, he decided he had to drive to Scotland, if only to prove to himself she hadn't gone there. He'd gotten no answer on the cottage telephone, but there'd been snow recently and he knew how unreliable the telephone service was in the winter. It was a nightmarish drive; the Iso was a lovely car but being Italian it was not well suited for a Scottish winter. He left it at Glenmoriston and prevailed upon the snow-plough to get him as close to the cottage as possible. He walked the rest of the way, every step taking him farther from Sarah, he knew, but he had to verify for himself that she wasn't there.
When at last he could see the cottage, a snug roof above a sea of white, he wasn't sure if he was imagining the smoke rising from the chimney. He feared he was so tired and exhausted, he was only seeing what he wished to see. But another hundred yards and he could see her, leaning on the spade gazing down the hillside toward the loch, the picture of satisfaction at the work she'd done shoveling. She didn't even hear him.
Finally she turned and saw him. He took off his dark glasses to see her face better, but it was impossible. She was so beautiful and he loved her so much, he simply couldn't tell if she was glad to see him. All he knew was that he hadn't been whole before this moment. She bustled around, in precisely the way she had at St. Edwin's and did at the Rose Road surgery, making him a huge breakfast. She was talking a great deal of nonsense about divorce and papers. He wanted to stop her, kiss her, but he knew he would make a hash of it if he didn't eat first. When she asked why he'd come, he merely told her the truth. He had to see her. He had to talk to her. But it was clear she wasn't ready, and he was simply too exhausted to fight her when she insisted he go to bed.
It was dark when he woke, and she'd made a stew; he could smell it even in the bedroom. He wasn't worried anymore. He was here and he'd found her. He shaved and went downstairs refreshed and strangely calm. He watched her bustle some more, both amused and charmed by her insistence on being a good hostess. Finally, she picked up her needlework and he knew it was time.
He explained about looking for her, and how the cottage was the last place he thought of because she'd said once that only if she was desperate would she make the drive herself. She muttered some nonsense about assuming he hadn't wanted to know where she was, and he was suddenly very mad at her.
"I've been half out my mind," he told her, in a weak effort to describe his fears. But that wasn't the point; this was: "I love you. I fell in love with you years ago . . . you were staffing on Men's Medical. It wasn't too difficult persuading Matron that you were just the type I wanted in O.P.D." At her look of shock, he nodded ferociously. "Oh, yes," he said, pleased to have surprised her. "Only to discover that you and young Steven . . . I waited three years. And then I married you, knowing that I would still have to wait while you recovered from Steven; knowing that you weren't ready for my love. That's why I allowed you to go on believing in that hoary legend about Janet and me."
"But you loved her," she said, as if it was an article of faith.
"Perhaps, for a year -- two years," and at that she nodded. He could see she understood how one can think one is in love, only with time to learn it was never very real at all.
He rescued the canvas from her blind efforts to stitch, and pulled her to her feet. He could tell it would be all right, she'd not reject him. His heart sang as she told him that she loved him, and had done so long before she knew about it. He kissed her as he had longed to kiss her, slowly and with all his love.
Oh, there were more explanations, but Hugo had all that he needed: Sarah, his Sarah.